Canada holds a special place in the heart of Gheorghe Zamfir. The Romanian maestro of the panpipes spent several years living in Montreal in the mid-’80s, he’s sold a staggering 15 million albums in this country, and in 1983-playing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra-he sold out the Orpheum for seven straight nights.
“I was a landed immigrant, but I never obtained my citizenship because you need to be in the country for several months without a break, and I was touring the world so much that I was unable to qualify,” says Zamfir, who fled to Canada from Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in 1982. (The musician had raised the ire of Romania’s infamous dictator partly by dedicating his music to God.) Talking by phone from a tour stop in Montreal, speaking in French, he adds: “This is my first time in Canada in 14 years.”
Zamfir’s success is phenomenal. He has sold more than 90 gold and platinum albums, provided soundtrack music for films from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and played for both Carnegie Hall and Pope John Paul II. That success has been due not only to his sophisticated command of an instrument regarded by many musicians as primitive but also to his versatility. “I play in nine or 10 distinct styles: several classical styles, from chamber music to sacred music, also folk, pop, jazz, and even a bit of rock,” he says. Zamfir is also a composer, having written masses, rhapsodies, concertos, and even, recently, a requiem.
Although he had performed a great deal of baroque music, the 64-year-old Zamfir had never worked with a string quintet until viola player Lucian Moraru suggested that Antonio Vivaldi’s celebrated The Four Seasons would sound amazing with panpipes taking the part of the lead violin.
“We’ve been rehearsing for four months, and gave our world premiere last night in Toronto,” says Zamfir, who appears at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts this Friday (January 27) with Moraru and the Romania-based Athenaeum String Quintet. “The panpipes give the work a whole new élan.” Along with the classical hit, Zamfir will also please fans of his K-Tel output, with his easy-listening, better-known repertoire-covers of songs like “Yesterday”, “Amazing Grace”, “Danny Boy”, and “El Condor Pasa”.
Zamfir is not only a virtuosic player and imaginative arranger, he’s also an instrument maker whose innovations have transformed the range of the panpipes. “I’ve created a whole family of pipes. Traditionally there was just a soprano, but I’ve made an alto, a tenor, a baritone, a bass, and a double bass-and two years ago I created the giant pipes, which is 1.2 metres wide. It’s so heavy it has to be transported by two people. It gives me seven octaves, almost as much as a concert piano. With this family of instruments, I’ve been able to create a whole musical universe.”